As those who know me can attest, I’m not the type to give in to peer pressure. Especially those who have been trying to get me to drink all through school (miz JS!). Normally, I am very good at resisting doing that which I don’t want to do. Somewhat stubborn, in fact, some might say…
I had decided to go to Jinja, a town located at the ‘source of the nile’ (where the nile starts from Lake Victoria), about an hour from Kampala, with the idea I’d just go visit, and not do the number one thing people do here in Jinja — White Water Rafting (grade 5 rapids).
See, I don’t really like the water, I don’t like adrenaline-rushing, life-threatening experiences (I’m fairly wussy that way), and I’ve never done white water rafting before so doing it at grade 5 to start would be really really stupid, don’t you think? So as I was sitting in the raft heading for our first rapid I was thinking to myself — “what the hell were you thinking??!”
Well, in my defense, I’m relying on the word of other travelers in getting advice about what to do and to see while here. And every single human being I’ve met, regardless of age or situation, has told me I MUST go white water rafting. It is fun, it is totally safe, you only flip if you want to flip, etc. Blah blah.
Since the place that hosts the rafting also offers one of the better-reviewed places to stay, and the guy at the hostel making the reservations for me didn’t understand that I wanted to go without the rafting, he booked me for the full-day rafting trip and I decided — what the hell!
So, I’m ready at 7am when the bar guys the night before told me I needed to be ready, only to find that the pickup is not infact until 7:45 or 8am. Grr. I’d gotten only a few hours sleep the night before because for some reason I’m sleeping really well for a few hours, am wide awake for a few hours, and then drift into half-sleep for the remaining 1/3 of the night. Unfortunately my next-door neighbors returned to their room around 2am and were up talking until 4am until I finally asked them to keep it down, but by then I really wasn’t sleeping anymore that night anyway.
The shuttle picks us up around 8:15 (a crappy minibus as is de-rigour here) and we drive to Jinja. We get dropped off at the Jinja hostel, and have breakfast watching the videos of previous days rides. These videos did not further excite me about the day’s endeavors. I stopped watching pretty quickly.
They give us directions about our life vests and hats, and off we go to the launch site. We separate into groups of 6 or 7. In my raft there were 7 people: me, a dutch couple, two japanese guys, a girl from canada who is currently teaching in Oman, and a welsh guy who was just on a week’s vacation in Uganda from his job with Oxfam in Darfur, Sudan.
There were six boats going our day, plus a ‘safety’ boat which held first aid stuff, lunch, and etc. The safety boat was paddled with 2 oars by this one guy and it was one of the most amazing feats I’d ever seen. There were also 6 kayakers whose job is to “clean up” after spills, picking up passengers. If they pick you up in front of the kayak, you grab on and put your legs frog-like up on the front of the kayak until they get you to your boat. If you grab on in back, then you kick your legs behind. I suspect this way minimizes rock damage to your torso if you’re picked up in the rapids and makes for easier paddling for the kayaekrs. I strategically position myself in the back of the boat next to the guide. I also befriend 2 of the kayakers and make sure they keep an eye on me. I’m not stupid!
As we begin the trip it’s really quite nice. The landscape is beautiful, very green and lush. There were lots of locals on the banks at various points, doing laundry. Even a trip as beautiful as this is marred by the poverty that surrounds you. One of the images that stuck with me was a little girl, maybe 9 or 10. She was wearing a blue satin-like dress with pleated puff shoulders and a drop cowl neck. It was clearly some other little girl’s dress that had been worn to a wedding, bat mitzah, or some special occasion. Most everyone is in 3rd generations cast-offs.
But back to the trip. We are surrounded by great and common cormorants who are fun to watch in the water, and it’s warm and sunny so it is very pleasant. Our guide begins to show us how to paddle and follow commands like “forward paddle, back paddle, medium forward, hard forward, grab and lean in, and grab and get down”. This last is what you do when you go over a big rapid.
Then after a few minutes of this, when we’re in the calm of the water, our guide says now we’re going to practice flipping the boat so you know what to do when that happens. This is where the fun part stopped. First we flipped and then he explained to us how if we are under the boat where the pockets of air are to be found, and then how to get back under the boat when the re-flip it. When you flip, you are supposed to try to hold onto the raft with the rope alongside it, and hold on to your paddle (yeah right). This is preferable to letting go the boat and being dragged around the falls. If you do let go the boat (called being a ‘long swimmer’ vs. a ‘short swimmer’ who holds on), they then give you brilliant advice such as “aim for the center of the rapids as you swim” or “try to get to the right on this one”. Believe me, when you’re tossed from a boat you are thinking one thing and one thing only “Dear God, please don’t let me drown”, not “gee, I’d better start swimming to the right”. Then we had to practice getting back into the boat which requirs much upper arm strenth, or people hauling you back in by your life-jacket. Absolutely none of this exercise was my idea of fun (though looking at the brightside, I was finally getting some exercise!).
Then we’re back in the boat and we begin the journey. When I am not incessently thinking to my self “what the hell am I doing here” it was really quite nice. Then we did grade 1 rapids which was nothing, and grade two rapids which was sort of fun.
We then did a 4 and a 5 and believe it or not, I was enjoying myself. I was thinking, ‘they’re right, this white water rafting stuff IS fun!”
Then, we come to the next grade 5 rapid, which I forget the name of, but has a wave in the center called the “G-spot”. This is the one time they advise that if you flip, DON’T try to hold onto the boat. Greeeaaaat!
So, we start going down and as I noted, it’s kinda fun. And then the boat flips. In my direction. So I’m the first one out of the boat. I remember going head-first into the rapids and then being dragged down and having no air whatsoever. I was trying to stay calm thinking my lifejacket must be taking me back to the surface. After an hour or so, I get to the surface, manage half a gasp of air before I’m sucked right back down again. After another hour or so, I find myself in fairly calm waters. Sputtering and coughing, but well alive. I could see my paddle not to far from me, but couldn’t get to it.
Hassan, one of the kayakers I’d befriended, fishes me out and I frog-sit until I get back to my boat. I was the one who ended up the furthest away and it took a few minutes for them to get my paddle back.
So we continue on and do another large rapid and then we get to “Silverback” another grade 5 and we flip again. This time I manage to stay holding on to the boat, and end up underneath it. There was some comfort in feeling my fellow boat-mates bodies around me, and I managed to get into the airpocket under the boat OK, but we had to go back under again in order to re-flip that boat. The dutch couple were the ‘long swimmers’ this time. He got picked up by the safety boat, she was picked up by a kayak so far away we had trouble finding her.
After that we were in a flat section and had a long rest period before the next set of grade 4 and 5 rapids (including one waterfall), plus the final rapid where pretty much everyone gets flipped out. Lunch consisted of pineapple and cookies, which I devoured. Paddling the boat is hard work on your shoulders and back, and my neck was bothering me from the first flip where I felt a little whiplashed. It was getting overcast and I was beginning to freeze as well.
At that point, thouse who had been booked for the ‘half day’ rapids were leaving and I opted to leave with them. As much as I enjoyed the kayaking, I didn’t enjoy the near-drowning feeling one gets from being flipped out. The dislike of that outweighed the enjoyment of the rest of the trip.
I was the only one who ‘opted out’ (complicated because my bag of change clothes was at the pick-up spot for the full-dayers, as was my passport and money so I was a little nervous about that). But I don’t regret my decision.
Later that night we watched the video and I got to see myself in third person being chucked out. The DVD was surprisingly high quality and well-edited, but I decided my near-death experiences captured on video were not worth $45. I caught up with the rest of my boat later that night and while they had a good time for the remaining rapids (only flipped once) they said there was a lot more paddling and it got really cold. In fact, a hard rain had caught us as we were driving back to the main location.
At the main location there were some problems with my room, but they said I could go and take a shower while they figured it out. They were private showers in rooms that were actually individual bathrooms rather than a dorm-like shower. I went to the first bathroom with my huge backpack (my smaller daypack with the planned changed of clothes was still with the truck for the full-dayers.). Stripped down and got into the shower. It was then I realized it didn’t have hot water. I simply could not bear it. I threw back on my wet clothes, went out and begged them if they had a hot shower so they recommended I try the other shower. The shower was gross in a grimy, mildewy sort of way, but it was hot. Gloriously, gloriously hot. I tried not to think about the fact that my tevas, which were also my shower shoes, were still in the truck so I was barefoot stepping in god-knows-what grime on the floor, but the shower so hot. I even conditioned my hair twice! (SO glad I’d bought huge bottles at the supermarket in Kampala).
Oh, and a note to MK, I finally found something that does defeats even the best of Cher Hair. After a day of white water rafting, getting dumped in the water, wearing a safety helmet, by hair half-way solidified in its ponytail holder, my hair looked like something Medusa would be proud of. Who knew it would take grade 5 rapids for my hair to finally meet its match.